With network television spending more time on commercials, and streaming services having “skip intro” buttons at the ready, the age of the classic TV theme song is mostly a thing of the past. The big exception, however, is in the world of anime, where what are essentially mini music videos introduce viewers to the world and characters of the show they’re about to watch. These remain both a standard practice and a beloved art form.
Anime intros are a way of showcasing great musical talent. Some are created specifically for a series, while others are pre-existing songs. For bands and solo artists, having your track featured in the opening credits of a show can mean exposure not just to anime fans in Japan, but around the world.
The following opening themes are the best of the best, ones that will keep you hyped episode after episode without a single temptation to hit that “skip intro” button. With many long-running anime having multiple different openings, we’ve limited this to one list entry per series.
The best openings don’t always come from the best anime. Is “Lucky Star” a series that stands the test of time? Not really. The humor is a mix of dry slice-of-life material that other shows have done better and otaku culture references that instantly date the series to 2007. Older fans seeking a nostalgic flashback to a previous era of anime might find some enjoyment in revisiting the series, but really, the majority of the fun is contained in the opening theme “Take It! Sailor Clothes” (“Motteke! Sailor Fuku”).
The majority of “Lucky Star” is very slow-paced, but the opening sequence is just pure hyperactive energy. The lyrics, consisting mostly of nonsense about school uniforms performed by voice actors Aya Hirano, Emiri Katou, Kaori Fukuhara, and Aya Endo, roll by at a tongue-twister speed. The dancing takes after the “Hare Hare Yukai” ending theme to Kyoto Animation’s previous hit “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” and makes for a super entertaining piece of animation.
“Just Between Us” (“Kokodake no Hanashi”) by Chatmonchy is a cute and fitting theme song for “Princess Jellyfish,” a josei dramedy about a jellyfish-obsessed woman who befriends a beautiful crossdresser and has to keep her man-fearing roommates from finding out. What really makes this opening sequence special and worthy of inclusion on this list isn’t so much the song itself, but the visuals that accompany it.
In just 90 seconds, this opening fits in references to “Sex and the City,” “Star Wars,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Mary Poppins,” “Emperor of the North Pole,” “God of Gamblers,” “The Graduate,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Bruce Lee, and even James Bond. The first time you see it, it’s the perfect “What the heck is this?” hook for the show, and once you start watching, you come to appreciate how well the smaller details in all these parodies fit the characters’ personalities.
“Pop Team Epic” is one of the strangest anime comedies around, a collection of random mixed-media skits that repeats itself with different voice actors taking the roles of the utterly chaotic schoolgirls Popuko and Pipimi. The techno opening theme, also titled “Pop Team Epic” and performed by Sumire Uesaka, is a work of sensory overstimulation that manages to perfectly encapsulate and even enhance the chaos that follows.
The first images of the opening sequence showcase Popuko and Pipimi on a TV set. As they run forward, a live-action bat covered in nails appears from nowhere and smashes the screen. This may very well be to protect the viewers from these chaotic entities escaping the TV and entering their lives. The music and animation go on to show that the schoolgirls are everywhere, showing up in random places across the globe, spying on you, and traveling through time to remake the world. Why do they exist? Who knows. But you should be very afraid.
Before lofi hip hop became inextricably linked to anime girls studying, there was “Samurai Champloo.” This gleefully anachronistic 2004 anime about two rival ronin working together to help a girl find “the samurai who smells of sunflowers” brought hip hop music and attitude into Edo period Japan. Director Shinichiro Watanabe is perhaps the best anime director around when it comes to effectively using music, and his anime always have outstanding opening themes (we’ll encounter another one later on this list).
The “Samurai Champloo” theme song “Battlecry” was composed by the late, great Nujabes (often cited as one of the originators of the lofi subgenre), with lyrics written and performed by Shing02. The mix of contemporary musical styles with traditional Japanese art, and of chill beats with intense lyrics and violent action, makes a striking impression that instantly grabs the viewer and prepares them for the creativity and artistry of the show they’re about to watch.
A number of anime have made effective use of Western pop and rock songs for openings over the years, including Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” in “Speed Grapher,” The Delgados’ “The Light Before We Land” in “Gunslinger Girl,” and Oasis’ “Falling Down” in “Eden of the East.” One of the most famous examples of this is the use of “Duvet” by Bôa in the 1998 cyberpunk classic “Serial Experiments Lain.”
“Serial Experiments Lain,” a show about an adolescent girl drawn into a web of conspiracies, is at once artsy, complex, scary, depressing, and yet also beautiful — all features that this opening theme exemplifies. The credits open with the ominous narrator declaring “Present day, present time” and bursting into a fit of laughter, immediately grabbing the attention of viewers. This is followed by “Duvet” and a showcase of the anime’s striking visuals, the perfect match for one another. “Lain” was prescient about the dangers of the Metaverse, but the internet today doesn’t look anywhere near as cool as it did here.
A list of the best anime opening themes wouldn’t be complete without at least one upbeat shonen opening. Long-running battle shonen tend to cycle through a lot of openings, so our options for this category were numerous; ranking the best “Naruto” or “One Piece” themes could be full lists unto themselves.
“Yu Yu Hakusho” has a somewhat unusual advantage in that it used the super catchy song “Smile Bomb” (“Hohoemi no Bakudan”) for the entirety of its 112-episode run from 1992 to 1995 (with changes to the opening animation at Episode 67 and again at Episode 94). The appeal of this fun and peppy theme thus has a greater hold on our nostalgic connection to the show itself.
“Smile Bomb” was performed in Japanese by Matsuko Mawatari. “Yu Yu Hakusho” was among the first anime dubbed by Funimation, which used to create English language translations of the opening music to accompany their dubs. The English version of “Smile Bomb” by Sara White manages to be just as good as the Japanese one.
Some anime purists might consider it sacrilege to list an American opening theme on this list, much less one from 4Kids Entertainment, the infamous former dubbing studio that gave us the horrific “One Piece” rap among other crimes against music. But every rule has an exception, and the English opening to the first season of “Pokemon,” performed by Jason Paige, may be the one localized opening theme (and certainly the only one from 4Kids) that not only rocks but is actually an improvement over the original Japanese opening.
If you were young (or young at heart) when “Pokemon” came out in the late-90s, you can no doubt recite the lyrics to the opening theme song by heart. Start singing “I wanna be the very best” in a crowd of otaku and you can guarantee that others will join in with “like no one ever was!” If you need more evidence of this infectiously catchy song’s superiority, note that when “Pokemon” was exported globally, other countries didn’t adapt the Japanese theme or make their own openings — they dubbed the English theme. It’s just that powerful around the world.
Every season of “Mob Psycho 100” thus far has had incredible opening themes, each performed by the series’ own musical group, Mob Choir. The first opening, titled “99,” arguably deserves to be on this list for its beautiful animation, inspiring lyrics, and the intense countdown ratcheting up the anxiety. “1,” the third season’s opening, was released months in advance of the season premiere and proved to be another masterpiece even without the context of the new episodes.
For the purposes of this ranking, however, we decided that “99.9,” the second season’s opening featuring the band Sajou no Hana alongside the Mob Choir, was the best possible choice to represent “Mob Psycho 100.” “99” was always going to be a hard opening to top, but “99.9” went above and beyond with even more exciting music and trippy animation. It won best opening sequence at the 2020 Crunchyroll Anime Awards, and some critics have gone so far as to declare it the best anime opening of all time.
Gentleman thief Lupin III (the grandson of Arsène Lupin from Maurice Leblanc’s famous novel series) could be considered the anime world’s equivalent of James Bond. As such, it’s only fitting that his theme music is as cool and instantly memorable as 007’s — even if he didn’t receive it in his first anime. Directed by future Studio Ghibli co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, “Lupin the 3rd Part I” was something of a mixed bag. The first half of the series is dark and gritty in places, while the second half is more family-friendly. The creators were still figuring out what worked for the character, and its repetitive theme is definitely not one of the greats.
“Lupin the 3rd Part III” went in a different, wackier direction, and its opening reflects that. However, it was the theme for “Lupin the 3rd Part II” that became the “Lupin” theme. Remixed multiple times over the course of the series’ run, it set the standard for jazzy adventure anime themes and has influenced countless anime openings. In the 21st century, “Part IV,” “Part V,” and “Part VI” have all returned to the “Part II” theme while crafting their own great animated sequences to it.
Satoshi Kon didn’t make anime the way anyone else did, and the opening sequence to “Paranoia Agent” — the one TV series he directed before his death in 2010 — is unlike any other anime opening. “Dream Island Obsessional Park” (“Yume no Shima Shinen Kouen”) by composer Susumu Hirasawa was designed to instantly wake up viewers tuning into this 2004 late-night psychological horror series and ready them for the strangeness to come.
“Paranoia Agent” is all about the allures and dangers of escaping from the difficulties of reality, and the opening sequence illustrates this theme in the eeriest way possible. The show’s cast of characters are shown standing at the edge of buildings, drowning underwater, standing in the middle of traffic, and in all sorts of dark and strange situations, all while laughing hysterically. The bombastic electronic music is overpowering in a way that feels like yet another level of disassociation, with lyrics about beautiful mushroom clouds and not worrying about tsunamis contributing to the surreal sense of disaster.
Can a great opening alone turn an anime into a phenomenon? The TV adaptation of Hajime Isayama’s “Attack on Titan” was going to be a blockbuster hit no matter what, but we can’t underestimate the effectiveness of its first opening. “Feuerroter Pfeil und Bogen” (from the German for “Crimson Bow and Arrow”) by Linked Horizon sold skeptics and non-otaku on this show potentially being the coolest thing ever.
The plot of “Attack on Titan” turned messy and controversial, but even if you hate the show itself, this opening is still perfectly calibrated to get your blood pumping and make you want to strap on some 3D maneuver gear to fight some Titans yourself. The show has had similarly great openings in its later seasons, but none can match the first one — every action-packed second of this theme became instantly iconic. It even became a popular meme that the music and editing were so awesome that they could make anything, from “King of the Hill” to “Winnie the Pooh,” look like the most badass thing in history.
The figure skating romance “Yuri on Ice” became an instant phenomenon among anime fans in 2016 and went on to sweep the first ever Crunchyroll Anime Awards, winning all seven categories it was nominated in. While there was some controversy about the show winning so many awards versus worthy competitors like “Mob Psycho 100,” it’s still absolutely a great series (it’s one of the best anime of the past decade, in fact), and “History Maker” by Dean Fujioka was a genuinely deserving winner for best opening.
Performed in English, the lyrics to “History Maker” are all sung by Fujioka but are written essentially as a duet: The first verse is from the perspective of the anxiety-ridden Yuri Katsuki, while the second is from the point of view of the loving and supportive coach Victor Nikiforov. The triumphant “born to make history” chorus is the two of them together. The beautiful music is matched with equally beautiful animation, with stylized and expressive renderings of the main characters skating their way around the screen.
As seen previously on this list with the “Lucky Star” opening, having anime characters dance to their theme music can be an easy formula for a winning introduction. “Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!” provides another dance-heavy opening, set to the song “Easy Breezy” by the rap duo Chelmico. It stands out both due to the sheer catchiness of the music and the personality the artists at Science SARU put into the animation.
“Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!” is about high school girls making their own anime. Unlike most other high school anime, where characters tend to be at least drawn if not written as idealized archetypes, the “Eizouken” girls are designed to be as quirky as their personalities. This comes across in the opening: Asakusa’s awkward charm, Kanamori’s cynical confidence, and Mizusaki’s freewheeling joy can be seen directly in their moves. The second half of the opening moves on from the dancing to a fast-paced barrage of iconography associated with the characters, building to one of the most dramatic title drops ever.
If this list were specifically ranking the most influential anime openings, then “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” (“Zankoku na Tenshi no Teze”) from “Neon Genesis Evangelion” would probably clinch the top spot. Performed by Yoko Takahashi, the song is sung from the perspective of a maternal figure inspiring a young boy to “become a legend.” An uplifting contrast to a show that would become extremely dark and heavy, “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” exploded in popularity even beyond the massive success of “Evangelion” itself — it was the single most popular karaoke song of Japan’s Heisei era, per Crunchyroll.
The opening sequence’s visuals have proven just as iconic as the music. “Evangelion” might have gone through some significant changes over the course of its production, but the opening’s rapid montage of images, title cards, and symbolism is packed with foreshadowing that pays off at the end of the series (even if the opening’s design for Kaworu is quite different to the one that would eventually show up in Episode 24). It’s maybe the ideal of what people think of as an “anime opening,” and it has been parodied on numerous occasions as a result.
Yoko Kanno is perhaps the greatest composer to have ever worked in anime — her themes for “Vision of Escaflowne,” “Wolf’s Rain,” and the first two seasons of “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” were all under consideration for this list. What was never in question when compiling this list, however, was that “Tank!,” the iconic opening to Shinichiro Watanabe’s beloved sci-fi Western “Cowboy Bebop,” was certain to be number one.
Though both “Cowboy Bebop” as a whole and “Tank!” in particular took clear inspiration from “Lupin III,” they have always stood out from the general popular trends in anime, both back in 1998 and in the decades since the show premiered. Hearing the incredible big band jazz tune and witnessing the cool and colorful animation on Adult Swim while channel surfing may be as responsible as any other factor for turning formerly anime-skeptical Americans into serious otaku.
This highly influential opening theme was many years in the making, as Kanno explained during an interview with Red Bull Music Academy. “The seeds for that score were sown in middle school and high school when I was a member of the brass band,” she revealed. “I wanted to play brass music that shook your soul, made your blood boil, and made you lose it. This yearning became ‘Tank!,’ which was the opening theme [to ‘Cowboy Bebop’]. I wanted to make music which would light a fire in me when I played it.” That fire caught hold of countless anime fans across the world and still burns brightly to this day.